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The Japanese Tea Ceremony
The Japanese tea ceremony is called Chanoyu, Sado or simply Ocha in Japanese. It is a choreographic ritual of preparing and serving Japanese green tea, called Matcha, together with traditional Japanese sweets to balance with the bitter taste of the tea. Preparing tea in this ceremony means pouring all one’s attention into the predefined movements. The whole process is not about drinking tea, but is about aesthetics, preparing a bowl of tea from one’s heart. The host of the ceremony always considers the guests with every movement and gesture. Even the placement of the tea utensils is considered from the guests view point (angle), especially the main guests called the Shokyaku.
What is the Japanese Tea Ceremony?
The Japanese tea ceremony is an artistic pastime unique to Japan that features the serving and drinking of Matcha, a powdered Japanese green tea. Though Japanese green-tea had been introduced to Japan from China around the 8th century, Matcha powdered green-tea did not reach Japan until the end of the 12th century. The practice of holding social gatherings to drink Matcha spread among the upper class from about the 14th century. Gradually one of the main purposes of these gatherings, which took place in a Shoin (study room), became the appreciation of Chinese paintings and crafts in a serene atmosphere.
Having witnessed or taken part in the Japanese Tea Ceremony only once, one will come to understand that in Japan, serving tea is an art and a spiritual discipline. As an art, The Tea Ceremony is an occasion to appreciate the simplicity of the tea room’s design, the feel of the Chawan in the hand, the company of friends, and simply a moment of purity.
As a discipline, aesthetic contemplation of flower arranging, ceramics, calligraphy, and the roots of the Tea Ceremony which go all the way back to the twelfth century is required. The ritual preparation requires the person hosting a tea party to know how to cook a special meal (Kaiseki), how to arrange the flowers which will be placed in the alcove (Tokonoma). When choosing utensils and other vessels, the host (Teishu) has to consider the rank and type to make sure that they will stand out.
Objective of the Japanese Tea Ceremony
Japanese tea ceremony toolsThe objective of the Japanese tea ceremony is to create a relaxed communication between the host and his guests. It is based in part on the etiquette of serving tea (Temae), but is also includes the intimate connections with architecture, landscape gardening, unique tea utensils, paintings, flower arrangement, ceramics, calligraphy, Zen Buddhism, and all the other elements that coexist in harmonious relationship with the ceremony. Its ultimate aim is the attainment of deep spiritual satisfaction through the drinking of tea and through silent contemplation. On a different level, the Japanese tea ceremony is simply an entertainment where the guests are invited to drink tea in a pleasant and relaxing room. The bonds of friendship between the host and guests are strengthened during the ceremony when the host himself makes and serves the tea.
Theories on the Japanese Tea Ceremony
The Way of Tea
Outside of Japan, the preparation of powdered Japanese green tea is known as “The Japanese Tea Ceremony”. The Japanese refer to it as “Chanoyu” which can be translated literally as “hot water for tea”, Chado or Sado translates to “the way of tea” as in devoting one’s time totally to the study and practice of the Japanese tea ceremony.
The western understanding of “a ceremony” is a set of formal acts, often fixed and traditional, performed on important social or religious occasions. However, rather than fixed, the Japanese Tea Ceremony does have flexibility since every occasion and different season calls for special and unique preparations, choice of utensils, choice of flowers for arrangement, a hanging scroll to describe the kind of tea-meeting and objective of the host. And rather than religious it could be better explained that the host will do the best he can by studying all related aspects such as calligraphy, flower arrangement, cooking, the wearing of a kimono, ceramics and much more. Therefore, it would be more appropriate to call it “The Way of Tea” since this would refer to a way of life, or a life style in devotion of preparing the best possible bowl of powdered green tea for the guests. The Way of Tea is a subtly variable way to commune with nature and with friends. Deeply rooted in Chinese Zen philosophy, it is a way to remove oneself from the mundane affairs of day-to-day living and to achieve, if only for a time, serenity and inner peace.
Wa, Kei, Sei, Jaku – “harmony, respect, purity, tranquility.”
“Wa” stands for harmony. As there is harmony in nature, the Teishu will try to bring this quality into the tea room and the garden around the tea house. The utensils used during the tea ceremony are in harmony with each other, so the theme is the same as well as the colors. The tea garden should be an extension of the natural flora surrounding it.
“Kei” stands for respect. The guests must respect all things, all matters without involving their status or position in life. They must crawl trough a small entrance called Nijiriguchi to get into the room. In the room they will all kneel down and bow to the hanging scroll, they will sit next to each other in Seiza position on the Tatami. Respect is also shown by carefully handling and observing the tea bowl and other objects during Haiken.
“Sei” stands for purity. Crawling into the tea room, one is to leave behind all thoughts and worries of daily life. The tea room or Chashitsu is a different world where one can re-vitalize, slow down, and enjoy the presence of friends. The gesture of purity is enhanced by the ritual cleaning of the Chawan, Natsume, Chashaku, and Kensui lit by the host. The real grand master of tea does not perform the Japanese tea ceremony from memory but from a pure heart.
“Jaku” stands for tranquility. Only after the first three concepts (harmony, respect, and purity) are discovered, experienced and embraced, can people finally embody tranquility. This was one of the teachings of the Japanese tea ceremony master Sen no Rikyu (1522 – 1591).
Wabi appreciation in the tea ceremony
Wabi – “Appreciating the beauty of things that are simple and natural,” the old meaning is “the loneliness of living in nature, remote from society.”
The tea room’s interior will seem imperfect and rustic. The wall might be unpainted and visible wooden pillars and beams are untreated, just as it would look like in nature.
Contrary to western houses, the tea house is not a small museum with lots of collectibles, there is only the essential needed for a unique meeting with the Teishu or host. There is only one hanging scroll in the alcove of the Chashitsu, there is no furniture or maybe a simple Tana to display tea equipment. The only sound is that of boiling water in the Kama, only the smell of incense from the fire, one flower or branch in the Hana-ire. Conversation is kept to that of the utensils in the tea room, and other equipment used.
kokoroire devotion to the way of tea
Kokoroire – “Pouring one’s heart totally into (devotion of) the tea ceremony.” The Teishu or host, is someone who devotes his life to the ritual preparation of a bowl of tea. They live “the way of tea.”
Preparing the tea
The ritual preparation of tea is very simple, simplicity is one of the basics for preparing a bowl of green tea for the guests. However, each step of the preparation has fixed movements, and utensils have to be placed at pre-decided locations on the Tatami mat. It is drinking tea and serving tea with a lot of spiritual depth and a deep silence and serenity.
Preparation styles can vary according to the season or the level of formality of the meeting. But basically there are two main preparations styles :
-Preparation of tea with the Furo during summer season.
-Preparation of tea with the Ro during winter season.
The main difference between preparing tea in summer and winter is that in summer the Kama or iron kettle is placed on a brazier and in winter the Kama is placed in a sunken hearth or Ro which is a square hole in the Tatami flooring. According to this the utensils used to prepare green tea are placed at slighly different locations. Also the Sumi-demae charcoal procedure is different in winter and summer. Because the placement of utensils is different during tea in summer and tea in winter, the way to finish the tea ceremony during Furo and Ro also differs.
History of the Japanese Tea Ceremony
Drinking of green tea was known in China from the fourth century. Tea plants didn’t grow in Japan until the first seeds were brought from China during the Tang dynasty (China 618-907), when relations and cultural exchanges between the two countries reached a peak.
In the eighth century the first mention of a formal ceremony involving the drinking of tea is found. However, at this time it probably didn’t look much like the tea ceremony we know these days. Also, during the eighth century a Chinese Buddhist priest wrote a book on the proper method of preparing tea. The book was called “Cha Ching” and taught the correct temperature of hot water and the use of tea vessels. It is said that today’s style of the tea ceremony evolved largely through the influence of this book.
During the Nara period (Japan 710-794) tea plants were grown in Japan and mainly consumed by priests and noblemen as medicine. Toward the end of the Tang dynasty in China, the drinking of tea was going through a transformation from medicine to beverage, but due to deteriorating relations between the two countries this transformation did not reach Japan till much later. The Japanese were forced to mold and cultivate their own traditions and culture around the tea. Tea was a rare and valuable commodity from the Nara period to the Heian period (794-1192) so rules and formalities were based on this concept. Had tea been native to Japan or more readily available, it is almost certain that the tea ceremony would not have been created.
Kamakura period in Japan.
In 1187 Myoan Eisai, a Japanese priest, traveled to China to study philosophy and religion. When he came back, he became the founder of Zen Buddhism and build the first temple of the Rinzai sect. It is said that he was the first one to cultivate tea for religious purposes, unlike others before him who grew tea for medicinal use only. He was also the first to suggest and teach the grinding of tea leaves before adding hot water. A Sung emperor named Hui Tsung, referred to a bamboo whisk used to whisk the tea after hot water was poured over it in his book Ta Kuan Cha Lun (A General View of Tea). These two methods formed the basis for the tea ceremony as we know it today.
Some hostility was created among monks who didn’t like Eisai’s newly introduced religious ideas which he had imported, but the Kamakura shogunate, who were among his first converts, helped him succeed in enlisting protection. In 1211, Eisai was the first to write a treatise on tea in Japan. In his treatise, Kissa Yojoki (Tea drinking is good for health) Eisai suggested that the drinking of tea had certain health benefits and cures for; loss of appetite, paralysis, beriberi, boils and sickness from tainted water. According to him it was a cure for all disorders, so this perhaps was the main reason that the Tea Ceremony gained such popularity.
Tea in the thirteenth century and the Samurai
Tea started to spread outside of the Uji district where it had mainly been grown since the beginning. But by now popularity and so demand was growing rapidly and called for plantations all around Japan. The samurai class, who loved everything about the Sung dynasty including the Tea ceremony, embraced it wholly and caused even greater popularity of the ritual preparation of green tea.
In 1333, the Kamakura shogunate fell which led to civil wars in the whole country. A new class of people came into existence, the Gekokujou (parvenus). These nobles whose extravagant lifestyles attracted much attention from the public, often held tea parties for their friends called Toucha. In this game the guests were tested on their abilities to distinguish between Honcha (genuine tea) and other tea. Soon betting accompanied these games and great valuable prices were presented to winners which added to the excitement of the game.
Originally the guests were given ten cups of tea, but this number increases to twenty, thirty and eventually one hundred cups per person. If there was a great number of people attending the party, it would have been impossible to provide every guest with one hundred cups. Although followed procedures are unknown, the guests probably passed cups from one the next. This technique of passing around tea bowl probably explains why only one tea bowl is used during today’s Tea Ceremony.
However strange this habit of sharing might seem to us now, it probably has its roots in the Samurai class. The Samurai had strong family ties, and when the family would gather on important occasions, it was custom for the lord to take the first sip of Sake from a large cup and then pass it among his retainers as a reaffirmation of their close bonds.
Tea ceremony during the Muromachi period
During the Muromachi period, Japanese architecture went trough a transformation from the formal palace style adopted in the Heian period, to a simplified style used by the Samurai. The next transformation was from Samurai style to the Shoin style which used elements of temple architecture. For the tea ceremony some of the Shoin design details were adopted, such as the alcove (Tokonoma), the pair of shelves (Chigaidana) in the side of the alcove, and the side-alcove desk (Tsuke-shoin). Of course Taami mats were used to cover the floor in the Shoin style.
The Samurai nobles made it their hobby to perfect the way of decorating the alcove, the shelves in the side alcove. The Shoin desk became fixed, with the aim of arranging a small number of utensils and articles in a way that was aesthetically and functionally.
After some time, the Shoin was used to serve tea ceremonially by the Douboushuu. All the utensils used by them came from China and were placed on a large utensil stand (Daisu).
Murata Shukou : The Founder of Chanoyu
When people of other classes became interested in the tea ceremony enjoyed by the Samurai class, they started having small tea gatherings in smaller and less lavish rooms which were appropriate to their status. From this the small room called Kakoi came into existence.
One of the best designers of smaller tearooms was a Zen priest called Murata Shukou. He later became known as the father of the tea ceremony because the etiquette and spirit of tea were originated by him. At the age of eleven he entered into priesthood at Shoumyou Temple until he was twenty. Ten years later he returned to priesthood at Daitoku-ji Temple under the monk and teacher Ikkyuu Soujun to practice Zen meditation. Later he was rewarded for his profound understanding of Zen and received a diploma signed by the Chinese monk Yuanwu. After this, he spend the rest of his days in his tea room in Nara to perfect the tea ceremony, and give lessons to anyone interested in learning the art. To all his students he tried very hard to instill the true spirit of simple, Zen-inspired tea.
Another important procedure initiated by Shukou, was that he himself would serve the tea to his guests. He preferred the intimate and personal atmosphere of a small room which could fit five to six people. The four-and-a-half-mat room that he had devised to create a more tranquil atmosphere during the tea ceremony had its origins in the Zen philosophy he had studied in Kyoto at Daitokuji Temple.
In a letter to his favorite pupil, Harima no Furuichi, Shukou outlined his own basic concept of the art of Chanoyu and his personal philosophy of aesthetics. He wrote about the idea of refined simplicity, or Kakeru, and about the importance of understanding the aesthetic qualities of sober-colored pottery from Bizen and Shigaraki. From his letters it can also be learned that he took great pains to study the best method of combining Chinese and Japanese tea utensils.
Toward the end of the Muromachi period, the tea culture reached its peak, and tea devotees were given different titles to distinguish their relation to the art. Chanoyusha was the name given to a professional teacher of the tea ceremony like Shukou. A Wabi-suki was a teacher distinguished by three particular qualities: faith in the performance of tea, an ability to act with decorum befitting a proper master, and excellent practical skills. Finally, the Meijin not only met all the qualities of a wabi-suki, but was a collector of fine Chinese tea utensils as well.